What are chilblains?

Chilblains are small, reddened, itchy patches that can appear on your skin after prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. They usually go away on their own after two to three weeks and aren’t considered serious, but you may need to see a GP if they don’t go away. Chilblains most commonly appear on the fingers and toes, but they can also appear on the face and legs.

What are the symptoms of chilblains?

  • Itching, soreness or a burning sensation on the affected area of skin. This often becomes more intense and even painful when the area is exposed to warm environments such as when you come indoors after being out in the cold.
  • Redness and swelling. If a toe has a chilblain, the toe may appear red and swollen, though this can be harder to spot on darker skin.
  • Bruise-like discolouration. Sometimes the chilblain may turn dark blue or purple (dormant chilblain). Again, this may not be easily visible on darker skin.
  • Blisters and sores may develop in severe cases.

What causes chilblains?

When exposed to cold temperatures, blood vessels around the surface of the skin constrict (get narrower). This is to move your warm blood closer to your core in order to keep your body temperature up, which has the side effect of making your extremities such as the fingers and toes colder. 

The opposite process occurs in warm temperatures, causing the blood vessels to get wider or dilate. If there are extreme changes in temperatures, this rapid rush of blood flow back into the blood vessel as it widens forces blood to leak from these vessels and into the surrounding tissues, causing chilblain symptoms.

Chilblains rarely cause any permanent damage, but they can be uncomfortable. Avoiding the cold or sudden and extreme temperature changes can prevent chilblains from occurring and help them to heal up faster. You may be more susceptible to chilblains if you smoke or have poor circulation, have Raynaud’s phenomenon or other autoimmune conditions,, you have diabetes, a low body weight or you are regularly exposed to cold, damp conditions.

Chilblain treatment and prevention

Do ✓

  • Limit your exposure to the cold. Do not go out in cold and wet conditions if you can help it. If you must go out, wrap up warm and make sure to keep your hands and feet well insulated by wearing thermal gloves and socks, as well as waterproof footwear.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures: DO NOT try to heat up cold hands or feet with a hot radiator or hot water bottle
  • Keep your hands and feet clean and dry.
  • Take measures to soothe itching and pain while your chilblains heal. Soothing creams and lotions, such as witch hazel or Balmosa pain relieving cream, may help to relieve discomfort.
  • Use painkillers or anti-inflammatories to reduce pain. Ask your pharmacist for advice as to which medication is best for you.
  • Take steps to improve your circulation. Your doctor can advise you on how best to do this.


Don’t X

  • Do not put your hands or feet directly onto snow, ice or into icy water. The colder your extremities get, the more likely it is that you’ll develop chilblains.
  • Do not attempt to warm up cold hands or feet with a hot water bottle, radiator or hot bath. Warm cold hands and feet up gradually to reduce the likelihood of chilblains.
  • Do not continue to wear gloves and thermal socks in a warmer environment. This can cause you to warm up too quickly and increase the risk of chilblains.
  • Do not smoke or drink caffeinated drinks. This can affect the blood flow in your extremities.
  • Do not scratch or pick at your chilblains.


Consult your GP or a healthcare professional if:

  • Your chilblains are severe – e.g. they are blistered, appear infected or there is pus leaking from your skin.
  • Your chilblains keep returning.
  • Your chilblains show no signs of improvement after 2 to 3 weeks.
  • Your temperature is very high, or you feel hot and shivery.
  • You have diabetes and chilblains.


Your GP may recommend a prescription medicine that will relax the blood vessels and improve circulation. 


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